24/05/2018 - Plastic recycling is failing to reach its full potential as low recovery rates of plastic waste, poor quality of recycled plastic and a lack of price incentives are holding back secondary plastic markets, according to a new OECD report. Given rising public concern over plastic pollution, governments should act urgently to encourage more and better recycling, it says.
|Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics: Trends, Prospects and Policy Responses attributes the lag in plastic recycling on the fact that it is still cheaper to make new plastic than to produce recycled plastic, partly because of the difficulties involved with separating out different plastic polymers. Moreover, primary plastic can be priced much higher than recycled plastic as it tends to be of much better quality. Issues with the presence of hazardous chemical additives that can survive in recycled plastic also weigh on secondary markets. The world produces around eight times as much new plastic as recycled plastic.
The report calls for stronger incentives for better design of plastic goods to ensure easy recycling, as well as investment in waste collection infrastructure and ensuring that different types of plastic are properly separated at source. It also recommends the introduction of product labels showing recycled content to help create consumer-driven demand for recycled plastics. In some sectors, required levels of recycled content in goods could be set.
The report also suggests heavier taxes on the manufacture or use of new plastics, for example making consumers pay for single-use plastic bags, cutlery or drinking straws.
The widespread use of plastics has brought many benefits. However, their increasingly pervasive use and inadequate disposal also have significant environmental impacts. The manufacture of plastic is highly resource intensive and accounts for 4% to 8% of global oil and gas consumption. Waste plastics can remain in the environment, harming wildlife and marine creatures, for centuries. Yet globally only around 15% of plastic waste is collected for recycling. A quarter is incinerated. The rest ends up in landfill, is burnt in the open air – releasing pollutants and greenhouse gases – or dumped in nature. Much ends up in oceans.
Recycling rates across different polymers vary greatly across countries, with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) which are mostly used for packaging being recycled at relatively high rates (19% to 85%), while polypropylene and polystyrene are much less recycled (1% to 21%). Overall plastic recycling rates range from 30% in the EU to 10% in the United States. In many developing countries, uncontrolled waste collection and treatment is still prevalent.
Barriers that need to be overcome to properly develop secondary plastic markets include:
The report will be presented at the May 29-31 Global forum on Environment: Sustainable Plastic Design in Copenhagen, the first session of which is open to the media.
Working with over 100 countries, the OECD is a global policy forum that promotes policies to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world